Friday, March 31, 2006

IInd innings at Delhi

As my train was chugging into the New Delhi railway station, several others trains cramped with passengers were waiting for signal to get into the station. Each of the train was bringing in at least a thousand of people to Delhi. Some had eager and worried faces, some were buzzing with excitement. Many of those in the trains are migrating to Delhi for in search of a livelihood. There were 3 such worried faces in the 2505-North East Express coming to Delhi from Guwahati some 8 years ago. One of them was mine; others were Sandip’s and Changka’s. It was not a sightseeing tour, but a job seeking one. The first priority was to find a low cost shelter. The search took us to a place called Munirka, located very close to the JN University (JNU) campus. The first time we were led to the room we were to hire, we stood dumbfound. For none of us ever had seen a house without any window. Honestly speaking, I never thought that anyone would build a house without window. We just look at each other, but had no option. So our life in Delhi started in a room that always had the halogen lamp on. After one month, my companions went back home leaving me alone in Delhi to fathom uncharted waters. There always had the temptation to run away to the comfort of my hometown. But thanks to something in me that goaded me to face it with courage and resolution. I had always listened to my inner voice and it had often helped me. That decision taken probably in my subconscious mind had changed my life. I started on a paltry salary of a bloodsucking private company having foreign links. Today I pay more than double what of I had earned in my first year of job as income tax. That was a forgettable past. But it linked Delhi to my life. What I am today is because of my decision to move to Delhi and more importantly to stay back and fight it out.

6 and 1/2 years after I left Delhi, destiny has brought me back to Delhi again. A move necessitated by job assignments. But this time to live a different life. From that dark one room shelter in Munirka, I have graduated to a spacious flat in the posh Patparganj societies. From having no option but to commute by bus, now I have both a car and a two wheeler. Only problem that was bothering me was driving on the roads of Delhi. Traffic is notorious in Delhi. Any bad driving is termed as ‘Delhiwalla type’. Of the total 4 km I need to traverse to reach office, 2 km is on the always busy Vikas Marg. To be on safer side, I started with my car for my first day on road. Honestly speaking it was not that tough. Driving was much easier than observing from pavements. I learned the simple funda very fast --- do not go to left, keep driving straight. There invariably will be some traffic on your left in your blind spot, most likely two wheelers which you can not see. Within a week, I had also started to come on my two wheeler as well. All one has to be careful about those bike riders who can not avoid zigzag driving even when traffic is flowing smoothly.

The transfer to Delhi was unexpected. When we got the message, there was lot of apprehension of a life in metro. That too in a city like Delhi which is growing in notoriety for its crime against women. For the last few years we had been living small town where life had been easier. It would be a culture shock but I felt that is needed to overcome those fear. My second stint at Delhi has started well. I hope living a family life in Delhi will be a great experience.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Rishikesh : Spiritual travel destination-II

A quietly flowing river, white sandy beaches, hills all around, temples and ashrams dotting the landscape - this is Rishikesh. Or Hrisikesh as we were taught in schools. Located on the foothills of Himalaya, Rishikesh is a very popular destination with spiritual travelers, specially those from the west seeking solace in Hinduism and Yoga. It is equally popular with adventure seeking tourists for white water rafting. White water rafting starts at places like Kauriyala, few km up on the Badrinath road. But all white water rafting trips ends at Rishikesh where the gushing white water of the Ganges embraces tranquility, as if pausing for a brief moment here for continuing the its downward journey in the plains.

It is located just 24 kms from Haridwar (and 44 km from Dehradun). So those who come to Haridwar cannot avoid visiting Rishikesh. The 24 km road through jungles and hills has many ashrams, including that of famous Baba Ramdev who has given Yoga a new dimension. Conducted tours from Delhi normally take travelers to both Rishikesh and Hardiwar. We had once taken such a trip from Delhi arranged through hotel. That was a long time back. But they follow the same route from Delhi. The bus dropped us at the famous Laxman Jhula at unearthly hours of early morning. In the darkness of night we could not see the famed bridge, but could only feel walking on it and the cold wind gushing us. We all went through a detour of temples like machines and came to the bus. The bus then took us to Haridwar. Nearly 20 years on, when I look back at that trip, I understood what a waste of time it was. Rishikesh is a peaceful and beautiful place. It might have more pristine beauty 20 years back.

The 44 km drive from Dehradun takes about an hour. The road goes through the Rajaji National Park and will greet you with few sharp curves and small hilly stretches. Infact, the altitude of Rishikesh is almost half that of Dehradun. So, we actually go down to Rishikesh even though we feel like climbing up. On the way (after a place called Doiwalla) you get to see the Jolly Grant Airport. This is the only airport catering to Dehradun, Haridwar and Rishikesh. An Air Deccan flight operates daily from Delhi. Road signs are good and you will not have any difficulty in reaching the area near Laxman Jhula. The starts climbing up about half km to the bridge and also becomes narrow. This road goes to Badrinath via Byashi. So, this in fact is the gateway for the Chardham Yatra, though Haridwar also claims to be the gateway. There are parking places both along the road and also at the sandy beaches on the riverbed. My suggestion is to try finding a place on the road rather than try going down to the river bed parking. Going down will not be a problem, but coming up will certainly be as the alley is very steep and open straight into the narrow main road. I had always chosen to park it at parking places on the main road beyond the Laxman Jhula. They normally charges Rs.20/- for parking.

Laxman Jhula is the main attraction at Rishikesh. It is a hanging bridge. The bridge is strong enough for locals to cross with two wheelers. The bridge in the backdrop of the hills provides a majestic view. There are many temples on the other side of the bridge. One can go down to the riverbed from both sides. If you are staying in Ashram, then probably most of them provide you a site where you can sit peacefully and enjoy the tranquility. For day travelers like us, there are sitting benches on the banks where you can enjoy or feel what the ashrams provides at no cost. Many resorts have also come up which are located further up in the hills on the Badrinath highway. They probably come in all ranges. One can easily find many of them from the net. If you plan to stay in Rishikesh, seriously think about staying in one of these resorts. They will be worth staying. But one needs conveyance, own or hired, to stay in these places as they are actually outside the town limits. I thought of staying in one of these resorts on several occasion. But there is so much to see in Uttaranchal and so many places to visit. Rishikesh was the second nearest tourist destination from Dehradun. It just remained a thought though. But as we have moved away from Dehradun, this dream may become reality someday.

How to travel from Delhi:
I have ben travelling a lot between Delhi and Dehradun by bus because of my job assignments at Delhi. Standing at the Kashmere Gate ISBT from where buses to Rishikesh leaves, I had observed that many good quality buses goes to Rishikesh. Infact buses going to Rishikesh was more frequesnt and better than those going to Dehradun. The fare for Govt. run delux buses is around INR Rs.250/-. It varies from operator to opearator. My advice of travelling only by Govt. buses stsnds here as well.

You can also think of taking the Air Deccan daily flight between Delhi and Dehradun. The flight fare is about INR Rs.2500/-. But honestly speaking, the time it will take for you to go to airport at Delhi, the time you spend at airport and then the time to travel out of airport will be almost as long as that travelling by bus. The option, of course is to travel by train to Haridwar and then thre are many ways to travel the final 24 km from Haridwar.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Haridwar : spiritual travel destination

It has been a fairly long time since my last post. I was busy shifting to the national capital of Delhi. With things geting settled and me resuming office, I am posting an article which was actually written about a month ago.

Haridwar : where it all started
It was around 25th July, 2004 when I had my first trip out from Dehradun. The destination was Hardiwar. It certainly was an auspicious begining. One and half year has passed since then and I have visited most tourist destinations of Uttaranchal. Now time has come to leave Dehradun. Before leaving Dehradun for good, we wanted to visit either Hardiwar or Rishikesh, mainly to collect some holy water of Ganga. It was also the month of Magha and so a pilgrimage was on the card. Finally we set out for Haridwar. The final drive in Uttaranchal to the same place where it all started.

Haridwar is 56 km from Dehradun by NH74. It is about 250 km from Delhi. One can travel directly to Haridwar from Delhi, both by train and road. Buses leaves from Kashmere gate ISBT. It is the gateway for going to Rishikesh and places beyond it like Badrinath, Kedarnath and Gangotri. Located on the foothills of Shivaliks, Haridwar is the place where river Ganga reaches the plains after thundering down the Himalayas. The first time I came here was in 1986 when we had a LTC tour of places around Delhi along with parents. We took a conducted tour from Delhi. The bus took us first to Rishikesh and then brought us to Haridwar. I had some memories left of that trip. I had never imagined even in my wildest dream that one day I will be back here. But I came back to the place after 14 years. That too driving down myself. It was destined to happen.

Haridwar is one of the important Hindu pilgrimage sites and attracts devotees from all over India round the year. It is equally popular with spiritual travellers from west. Many Ashrams have been established in idylic hill surroundings which cater to the spiritual needs of tourists. During the kanwariyan season in the month of Sawan (June-July), the place remains heavily crowded. It remains open 24 hours during that period. The place adorns a festive atmosphere and melas (fairs) are held during that period. During that time even the Delhi-Haridwar highway is closed for vehicular traffic. The kanwariyans collects holy water of Ganga and then goes back to far away places like Delhi on foot. One must appreciates the faith these people have in God. Well, this is India.

Haridwar has great importance in Indian mythology. It is said to be one of the four places in earth where elixir (amrit) fell. Brahmakund of Har-ki-Pairi is the place where amrit fell and so a holy dip here, specially during the kumbh, has great significance.

It is said that King Bhagirath performed penance here to free the souls of his ancestors (the sixty thousand sons of King Sagar) from the curse of sage Kapil. Finally his prayer was answered and river Ganga was brought to earth from the heaven which freed his ancestors from the curse.

Har-ki-Pauri was constructed by King Vikramaditya in memory of his brother Bhartrihari. It is believed that Bhartrihari eventually came to Haridwar to meditate by the banks of holy Ganga. When he died, his brother constructed a Ghat in his name which later came to be known as Hari-Ki-Pauri. This sacred bathing ghat is also known as Brahmakund.

Kumbh mela is held here every 12 years and Ardh Kumbh every 6 years. Jupiter (Brahaspati) comes to the sign Aquarius (Kumbh) once in every twelve years the Kumbh fair is celebrated at Haridwar. The last Kumbh at Haridwar was held in 1998. (Kumbh mela is held every three years, rotating through the four cities of Prayag, Nasik, Haridwar and Ujjain)

Har-ki-Pauri: the gateway to heaven
Har-ki-Pauri is the place where one goes in Haridwar. There is a big parking area just next to the ghat. This is accessible both from inside the town and bypass side. They charge 15 rupees as parking fee for a car. You can safely park your car here.

The words Har-ki-Pauri literally means stairs to heaven. This is a ghat located on a canal diverted from the main Gnaga that flows about a kilometer further. The ghat is considered sacred as this is said to be the place where amrit fell. You will find hundreds of people taking the holy dip in main ghat area in Har-ki-Pauri. I must tell you that the water is very cold even in summer and icy cold in winter. Once I took bath here in July and still found the water to be cold. I took only one dip in four visits here. The first time we came here with parents in October, 1986. I could still visualize the scene when my late father had a dip on a cold and cloudy morning. It might have a bone shattering experience. We collected plenty of holy ganga jal from the Har-ki-Pauri. The stock will last for few years. There are few temples on the other bank of the canal. If you see them you will feel that they are not really ancient. But all of them have written on their walls as ancient temples. Whether you believe or not is upto you. The money you gave in offerings in the temples seems to go to the panditji managing the temple rather then to some trust. This is because the money I laid before one of the deity was picked up the panditji who chanted mantras for us and put it into his pocket. If you go there during daytime, a dip in ganga and a visit to the temple sums up your visit.

Aarti at Haridwar:
Once I went there in the afternoon to watch the famed aarti in the evening. I must admit that it was really magnificent. It was an altogether different experience that can not be described in words. All the ills you see during a day visit disappear in the darkness of night. The aarti starts just before twilight. You need to occupy a good place on the banks well in advance. You will be surprised to find thousands of people congregate on the two banks. The best place to see aarti will be the bridge next to the temple. But crowd is not allowed on it during the aarti. The place will be abuzz with chants of devotional songs that build up a very nice atmosphere before aarti starts. Devotees offer puja by floating diyas in boats made of dry leaves. Hundreds of diyas on the swiftly flowing water provides an unforgettable view. The chants of Har-Har-Gange, Jai-Maa-Gange will fill the air during the performance of aarti. One must be there during the aarti to get mesmerized. You will get to feel the tremendous faith we Indian have in god almighty.

What else is worth seeing :
Mansa Devi Temple:
Just next to the Har-Ki-Pauri, there is ropeway that will take you to the Mansa Devi temple on the Bilwa Parbat. I had been there twice earlier. If you are going to Haridwar from a far away place, you should not miss this.

Chandi Devi Temple:
This is located few kilometers away from Har-ki-Pauri, on the other bank of the Ganga. So, this is bit off the track. You can visit this if you are at Haridwar with a day long plan. Perched atop the Neel Parvat this temple was constructed in 1929 A.D. by the king of Kashmir- Suchat Singh. Legend has it that the army chief Chanda-Munda of a local demon King Shumbh- Nishumbha was killed by goddess Chandi here after which the place got the name Chandi Devi . The main statue was believed to have been established by the Adi Shankracharya in 8th century A.D. You can go to this temple by a ropeway which is longer than the one at Mansa Devi. I have never visited this temple. The riding point of ropeway falls on the Haridwar – Najibabbad highway.

For the not so devout :
The place wears a not so clean look. I mean not like places such as Badrinath which evokes a spontaneous peace of different kind in the minds. Though I have been to Haridwar four times, the dirtiness really puts me off. Plus beggars and quacks dressed up like sadhus trying different tricks to earn some livelihood. There is a trust called by Ganga Harisabha which is supposed to maintain the Har-ki-Pauri. Their agents outnumber tourists on a not so auspicious day. Every five minutes, one of the agents will come to you demanding for donation. If you confront then they will tone down their demand to request. Then if you agree to pay 11 or 21 rupees, they will try talking you to shell out more. I told them that the temple complex also has so many donation boxes put up by the trust and devotees normally make donations there. So why are they after further donation? The reply was that the money donated at the temple boxes goes to somewhere else and the money donated here goes to somewhere else. They did not tell where, but in all probability some percent of amount collected each day goes to them as commission.

In the end:
The round trip from Dehradun took about 3 hours. My new found interest in driving and enjoying the beauty in the hills of Uttaranchal ended where it started a year and a half ago. That’s all from Dehradun. We have started counting the days.